Taking a break from Denver, I get the hotel to shuttle me over to nearby Littleton where I can pick up an accessible rental van from Wheelers. No problems getting there on time or getting the van out. It’s a Chevy Venture with a powered ramp on the side and a Q-Strain tie down system.
The van is a little worn around the edges…it has over 80,000 miles on the odometer, the hood does not like to stay closed, you have to heave your weight against the automatic sliding door to get it to shut, and the “Check Engine Light” came on before we had to turn it back in.
It’s also expensive. At $230 for two days, with a 400 mile limit (plus about $50 in gas), it’s about 3 times as much for a decent rental car.
Still, it didn’t break down and got us where we needed to go, with Tim in his chair the entire time.
I take the van back to the hotel to pick up Letty and Tim and we’re off…
About an hour’s drive south of Denver is Colorado Springs, famous as the home of the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. It’s also famous for the giant 14,000 foot, snow covered mountain…Pike’s Peak…that hovers over it.
We had originally planned on driving up the toll road to the top of Pike’s Peak but the heavy snowpack has closed the road short of the peak. Instead, we head to the Garden of the Gods.
The Garden of the Gods is a stunning collection of red rocks sticking out of the ground south of town and just east of the peak. It’s also one of the few free or cheap attractions in the area being completely admission free.
We start off at the visitor’s center, across the street from the main entrance, and get a free map from one of the workers. She points out a hidden handicapped parking lot, about a quarter mile past the first big lot, where there’s a trailhead to a paved, accessible trail.
There’s also a deck outside perfectly situated to get views of the park with the massive Pike’s Peak behind it.
We grab a couple of snacks from the café, get back in the van, and head in.
It’s not hard to find our parking lot. There are about a half dozen handicapped spaces…all empty…and we park right next to the trailhead. There is 1.5 miles of this accessible trail winding through the central garden area, home to almost all of the park’s main features.
The first big rock we walk by has a natural arch at the top. Because of its shape, it’s called the “Kissing Camels.” It looks like a couple of dromedaries locked in a smooch.
Just beyond this is a large plaque dedicating the park to free public use forever where there is also a lot of historical graffiti scratched into the rock.
Across the way, several climbers are working their way to the top of another big rock. If you’re an experienced technical climber, with all the proper equipment, you can get a permit to climb at the visitor’s center.
Continuing on, there are points on the path where we can get up close to the rocks and touch them or even get inside some of the nooks and crannies.
We see about a dozen species of birds on the walk, some who stay still for pictures and others who are a bit more fidgety.
After our hike, we get back into the van and go to the other end of the park where there is a huge boulder balancing on top of another rock.
Letty climbs up to get the obligatory pictures but I notice that there are two large deposits of concrete under the rock. Let’s just say that the park staff wants to make sure this rock balances for perpetuity.
It’s one last look at Balancing Rock and then back in the van.
We drive to the high point of the park and see these jets, probably from the nearby Air Force base, practicing over the park.
After a couple of more pictures, we head out.
A few miles away, we drive through an old part of town. There seems to be a medical marijuana outlet on every corner. I’m thinking to myself, it’s already a mile high here…how much higher do you want to be?
Beyond that, we get to our next destination, Seven Falls.
This is another park full of natural beauty but unlike the Garden of the Gods it is not free. In fact, it’s $9.95 per person, which seems a bit steep to look at a waterfall and there is no discount for the disabled. We were able to secure a dollar off coupon on our map of the Garden of the Gods so we at least got that.
There is a gorgeous and very narrow canyon at the entrance. This is also the location of the only restrooms in the park so make sure you stop here first or else it’s a long walk back down.
At the top, there are three handicapped spots and a visitor’s center. A ramp will get you up into that building and to the plaza behind it where you can get up close to the bottom of the falls. There is also a stage here where Native Americans sometimes put on shows.
Next to the visitor’s center is a pool where large trout live. There are vending machines where you can buy fish food for fifty cents.
A toss of the food on the water creates a feeding frenzy.
You’re not supposed to do it, but the local chipmunks will also eat that food right out of your hands. We didn’t do it but many other visitors did.
Across the parking lot from the visitor’s center is a tunnel into the mountain. To the left are some railroad tracks rusting away on the mountainside. These are the remains of an old funicular that took guests up the mountain to a viewing platform.
Today, there’s an elevator at the end of this tunnel.
Visitors can now ride up the lift to the platform and see the complete set of falls.
This is also the accessible way to see the falls.
If you’re strong and able, there is a very long staircase that takes you up to the top of the falls.
We spend a little time up here, soaking in the views, before heading back down, checking out the gift shop, and then heading out of the park.
Originally, we had planned to drive to the top of Pike’s Peak via the toll road there. The toll is just under $40 as of this writing but the snowpack had the road closed short of the peak. I also question whether our little van with the check engine light would have made it up to the 14,100 foot peak.
That plan scratched, we head over to the nearby town of Manitou Springs and visit the Cog Railway. We didn’t take the train, with a cost of over $100 for the three of us, but a special train with a cog to grip the steep slope takes visitors to the top of the mountain.
It looks like a lot of expensive fun. It’s wheelchair accessible but with only two spots on the train, reservations are essential. Call a couple of days ahead to book your space.
The gift shop here is a notch or two above the others in the area so we actually buy a few things here from the very friendly staff.
On the way out of town, we see this big inn and snap a picture. This is Miramont Castle, originally built as a home to the priest who ran the local sanitarium. Quite a residence for someone who’s taken a vow of poverty.
You can now tour the castle and have tea there. We didn’t but there have been lifts installed to help visitors in wheelchairs to see all the levels.
With that, our day trip to Colorado Springs is over and it’s back in the van to return to Denver.
Copyright 2011 – Darryl Musick
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